Alabama team kicks off SEUS Japan 42 amid rising Japanese investment

Alabama team kicks off SEUS Japan 42 amid rising Japanese investment
Masa Aihara, president of Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA, oversees the raising of the first beam for the new Huntsville facility. (MTMUS)

Alabama Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield is leading a delegation of state business leaders at an international conference in Savannah, Georgia, that seeks to amplify the longstanding economic and cultural ties between seven Southeastern states and Japan.

The 42nd annual joint meeting of the Southeast U.S.-Japan and the Japan-Southeast associations, known as SEUS Japan 42, officially begins today and concludes Tuesday with speeches and high-level panel discussions.

This year’s conference takes place at a fertile time for Alabama’s robust economic relationship with the Asian nation. Japanese companies are in the process of hiring nearly 6,200 workers at new or expanding Alabama manufacturing operations. Total investment in these projects tops $2.5 billion.

Canfield said the annual SEUS Japan conference provides the Alabama team with an opportunity to reinforce bonds that have been established over decades and to explore pathways to future collaborations.

“The benefits of this special relationship are easy to identify – working together, we have driven economic growth, spurred job creation and shaped new opportunities. At the same time, we have bridged cultural gaps to develop genuine friendships that transcend great physical distances,” he said.

Toyota announced a $288 million expansion project at its Alabama engine factory in 2019. It’s also teaming with Mazda to build a $1.6 billion auto assembly plant in the state. (Toyota)

The Alabama delegation at SEUS Japan 42 includes company leaders, economic development specialists, mayors, workforce training officials and others. Many of them come from areas where Japanese companies have operations, including Birmingham, Huntsville, Decatur, Jasper and Marshall County.

Local impact

Matt Arnold, president and CEO of the Marshall County Economic Development Council, has seen first-hand how Japanese investment can benefit Alabama communities.

Arnold said Marshall County’s first Japanese company – TS Tech, which makes automotive seats for Honda’s Alabama assembly plant — arrived in Boaz in 2000.

“When they first announced, they said they would employ about 250 people max. They quickly ramped up to about 600 and are currently at around 750. That seems to be a trend with the Japanese — they don’t want to overpromise and under-deliver,” he said.

The second Japanese auto supplier, Newman Technology of Alabama, came to Albertville in 2012 with plans to employ 65 people, a figure that has grown to 400 today. Both TS Tech and Newman have invested $60 million to $70 million in the county, Arnold said.

Another Japanese firm, JST Corp., started operations with four employees and has grown to about 30 employees as it expanded its Marshall County activities. Arnold has met with the company’s top managers in Japan and hopes to see future growth.

“Our experience with Japanese companies in Marshall County has been fantastic,” he said.

‘Bridging Cultures’

The theme of this year’s joint meeting in Savannah is “Bridging Cultures. Celebrating Success.” Members of the Alabama delegation, numbering around 50, will participate in networking events and hear insights from experts on topics such as logistics and workforce development.

The TS Tech facility on the site of a former apparel factory in Boaz, is undergoing a $26 million expansion that will create 100 jobs. TS Tech was the first Japanese company to set up an operation in Marshal County. (contributed)

Ceremonies Tuesday begin with a delegates’ breakfast and an opening ceremony. That’s followed by remarks from state delegation leaders, including Canfield, and panel discussions on economic trends and investment opportunities.

Speakers at the event include Kazuyuki Takeuchi, Consul General of Japan in Atlanta, and His Excellency Shinsuke Sugiyama, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to the United States of America.

“Our secure business connections with Japanese companies have helped Alabama and the Southeastern United States prosper. However, it has not been without its challenges,” Canfield said.

“That is what is unique about this conference. We can come together and share best practices that have led to successes in our states. We all want to retain and encourage new Japanese and SEUS investment,” he added.

Besides Alabama, the states represented at the conference are Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi and Florida.

‘Lifelong relationships’

A key player in assisting the expansion plans of Japanese companies in Alabama is Ed Castile, director of AIDT and deputy secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

AIDT, the state’s primary workforce development agency, is engaged with Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA as the automakers begin to hire as many as 4,000 workers for a new $1.6 billion joint venture assembly plant in Huntsville.

AIDT is also assisting a half-dozen Mazda Toyota suppliers that plan to hire an additional 1,700 people in North Alabama.

Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield and Gov. Kay Ivey stand beside a Mazda automobile at the site of the future Mazda Toyota Manufacturing USA assembly plant in Huntsville. (contributed)

“Japanese investment in Alabama has given our citizens incredible career opportunities over many years that are life-changing,” said Castile, who is attending SEUS Japan 42. “We have had the privilege to work with very professional staff with each company, and they place a high priority on the welfare of each employee.

“They not only provide good jobs — they are also creating lifelong relationships. It is a pleasure to work with the Japanese and develop lifelong friendships,” he said.

Economic ties between Alabama and Japan are strong.

Japan was Alabama’s fifth-leading export destination in 2018 with more than $821 million worth of shipments, including coal, chemicals, motor vehicle parts and accessories, machinery and aircraft engines and parts, according to Hilda Lockhart, director of the Commerce Department’s Office of International Trade.

Japanese companies have made investment commitments in Alabama totaling nearly $7.3 billion since 1999, when Honda announced plans for a Talladega County auto plant. Around 16,000 anticipated jobs have stemmed from Japanese investment during this period, according to Commerce data.

Alabama today is home to 77 Japanese companies involved in industries including chemicals, steel, advanced materials and nutritional supplements in addition to automotive.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

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